Reflecting on Art in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia

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Rochdi Belagsmi, 28, is a Tunisian dancer, choreographer, and professor at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art. Photo: Ahmed Thabet

By: Shams Abdi

Published Saturday, February 14, 2015

In Tunisia, art has always been a vocation fraught with difficulties. Before the Tunisian revolution of January 14th, Tunisian artists were censored and marginalized. In its aftermath, they have benefited from an expansion of their freedom of expression, but they are still morally and physically under threat. Now that the country has emerged, relatively speaking, from the three-year transitional period that followed, Tunisian artists are considering the changing role of their art and its relationship to the socio-political context of their country.

Halim Yousfi is a 30-year-old man with messy short hair and a light beard. Best known as the lead singer and guitarist of Gultrah Sound System, an underground Tunisian band, spoke to Al-Akhbar English about his first encounter with a guitar. “It was definitely the beginning of a love story,” he said, smiling and holding up a glass of whiskey in a downtown Tunis bar.

Halim and his band, formed in 2005 after his encounter with violin player Wissam Zyadi, was marginalized and censored in pre-revolutionary Tunisia.

“One time, during a concert, the police cut off the electricity,” he said. “The organizing team asked us to leave the place from the back door. We ran, with our instruments on our shoulders.”

Yet, Halim said that he feels nostalgic. For him, music used to have a different taste, he used to be more enthusiastic to perform. “The cause back then was unique, today a million problems have emerged,” he said. “Or maybe I was younger and had more energy.”

Despite his nostalgia, Halim is satisfied with his band’s current standing. Gultrah Sound System’s music, according to him, has now reached a larger public.

Halim Yousfi and Wissam Ziadi of underground Tunisian band, Gultrah Sound System. Photo: Dorra AchourHalim Yousfi and Wissam Ziadi of underground Tunisian band, Gultrah Sound System. Photo: Dorra Achour

Rochdi Belagsmi, 28, a Tunisian dancer, choreographer, and professor at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts expressed a view slightly different from Halim’s when it comes to perceiving art in the pre-revolutionary period. “It was self-censorship,” he said.

Rochdi told Al-Akhbar English that Tunisian artists worked separately and got submerged by fear whenever one of them was targeted by the authorities. For him, Tunisian artists were far from being in the front row of the revolutionary process, but now they have a historical opportunity to fix their previous mistakes and work for real change.

When the revolution took place, Halim was abroad and the band was no longer performing. He came back to Tunisia in 2012. “When I came back, expelled from Belgium after serving a jail sentence, I thought I was going to work in a call centre,” he said. “I didn’t expect our audience waiting for us to be back on stage again.” Halim told Al-Akhbar English that during 2012 and 2013, he was under the shock because of the atmosphere of violence that Tunisia was going through.

Speaking in a bitter tone, he said, “I didn't recognize the country.”

In late 2013, Halim responded to the situation with a song titled “Bled Ekher Zman” (The Country of Our Times).

On the other hand, Rochdi, after being attacked while performing his solo “Zoufri” in the street, preferred to go back to what he calls his natural environment: The Stage. “I’m not that courageous, I won’t perform on the street again,” he said. “It is because I don’t want my art to lose its aesthetic and artistic dimension for the sake of its resistance.”

He told Al-Akhbar English that he believes in the multiplicity of platforms and that all artists should contribute to some sort of a social revolution, a process that might take years, but has recently started to take shape.

A social or a cultural revolution is a concept that both artists talked about, yet, each from their own perspective and domain.

Rochdi Belgasmi sees contributing to the creation of Tunisian Contemporary Dance as his role in this revolution. According to him, Tunisian dancers forget about their traditions when they are on stage; they reproduce Western models of contemporary dancing. “It is a crisis of identity, I believe.”

“The burning of the body that led to the revolution and even the movement of the hand when pronouncing ‘dégage’”— a word that means “leave”— that protestors used to scream addressing the former President Ben Ali, “they are all parts of a big choreography.”

He told Al-Akhbar English that creating a Contemporary Dance that is proper to Tunisia must first go through a process of observation of those kinds of gestures. “We all should deeply observe our own movements in order to get out of our state of stagnation.”

In his last solo “Metadance,” Rochdi works on dancing as a full-fledged theme rather than a mere instrument to convey a message.

Rochdi expressed relief when it comes to the actual situation of Tunisia after the November 2014 election of a new parliament and president. He sees the country moving towards political stability.

Yet, he said that “artistic instability” will always be present, something which he describes as positive since it is an element that fuels the debate in the cultural scene and feeds the evolution of the Tunisian identity.

“Art is definitely not included in any political program,” he said, “but artists should understand that the change should come from themselves and not from politicians.”

When asked about his perception of a cultural revolution, Halim said: “It is about creating our own politics, our own educational system, and our own art.” His position goes hand in hand with that of Rochdi.

Yet, when asked about the particular message he wants to convey through his music he responded: “I do not have one. I do not impose any idea on my public. I just want them to ask questions and reflect upon things.”

He reminded Al-Akhbar English that the Tunisian word “gultrah” initially means “speak and let me hear you.”

Halim is indifferent towards the political situation. “Who is at the helm of the state is not important, what matters most is our art, our music, and our contribution to the cultural revolution,” he said.

Both Halim and Rochdi have new plans. Gultrah Sound System are now working on new songs and preparing their participation in the Egyptian festival ‘Alganoob,’ while Rochdi is working on three new shows and preparing his participation in different festivals such as Shubbak Festival - A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture in London.

These artists share an optimism about the future.

Rochdi described the country as “having quick and steady steps towards a brighter future,” while Halim preferred to let the readers of Al-Akhbar English think about some lines from Gultrah Sound System’s song “One Day”:

One day the dark will be replaced by the sun

Not anymore we’ll have to live underground

Nothing will come out of their guns

Not anymore will my people have to run.

Shams Abdi is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.

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